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When Flint, Michigan's emergency manager switched the city's water supply from Detroit to the Flint River, he saved about $5 million dollars, but also exposed thousands of residents to lead and other contaminants. Lead exposure, even in the smallest amounts, can impair a child's brain function for life.
It took Flint's residents more than a year to gain the attention of state authorities, and the nation, but now that they have, the lawsuits and investigations are starting to roll in.
Flint Residents Go to State Court
Two lawsuits filed in Michigan state court last week focus on Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. One seeks an injunction over planned water shutoffs and a ruling that Flint residents are exempt from past and future water bills. The other, a class action against the MDHHS, seeks financial damages for the city's "man-made catastrophe."
Both lawsuits focus on MDHHS's failure to act on its alleged knowledge of the lead contamination. The class action claims that MDHHS "sat on the information for more than 10 months," while residents -- including children -- continued to be exposed to contaminated water.
The lawsuits also seek access to state emails about Flint's lead contamination, according to The Detroit News. Last week, Governor Snyder released copies of his communication about Flint -- which isn't subject to state public records law -- but many complained that the emails were too heavily redacted.
Was the Contamination a Constitutional Violation?
Four families are also suing the state in federal court. Unlike the state suits, theirs focuses on the role of Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality. Along with the governor, it names former DEQ director Daniel Wyant and former chief of the Office of Drinking Water, Liane Shekter Smith.
It alleges that the defendants violated Flint residents' constitutional rights when it "took safe drinking water from them and replaced it with what they knew to be a highly toxic alternative solely for fiscal purposes."
These suits are only the beginning and there will undoubtedly be more litigation to come in the future. The federal government opened an investigation into the crisis in early January and some have called for a compensation fund for those affected, not too dissimilar from what was used during the BP oil spill.